Every year, from February to March, Carnival in Venice is held. The Carnival ends with the Christian celebration of Lent, forty days before Easter on Shrove Tuesday (Martedi’ Grasso or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. The festival is world-famed for its elaborate masks.
The first documented sources mentioning the use of masks in Venice can be found as far back as the 13th century. The Great Council made it a crime to throw scented eggs. The document decrees that masked persons were forbidden to gamble.
Another law in 1339 forbade Venetians from wearing vulgar disguises and visiting convents while masked. The law also prohibited painting one’s face, or wearing false beards or wigs.
In the seventeenth century, the baroque carnival was a way to save the prestigious image of Venice in the world. It was very famous during the eighteenth century. It encouraged license and pleasure, but it was also used to protect Venetians against the anguish for present time and future. However, under the rule of the King of Austria, the festival was outlawed entirely in 1797 and the use of masks became strictly forbidden. It reappeared gradually in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and above all for private feasts, where it became an occasion for artistic creations.
By the eighteenth century the wearing of masks by Venetians continued for six months of the year as the original religious association and significance with carnevale diminished. On October 17th, 1797 Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798 and it fell into a decline which also effectively brought carnival celebrations to a halt for many years.
After a long absence, the Carnival returned to operate in 1979. The Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice, and sought to use the traditional Carnival as the centrepiece of its efforts. Today, approximately 3 million visitors come to Venice every year for the Carnival. One of the most important events is the contest for la maschera più bella (“the most beautiful mask”) placed at the last weekend of the Carnival and judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers.
People with different occupations wore different masks. A mélange of truth and lies, of sincerity and delusion, its origins practically untraceable, the mask’s prerogatives were, at first, exclusively ritual; over the centuries it maintained the concept of transgression which is the basis for every form of masquerade.
More than any other city, Venice was famous for its carnivals, its eccentric masquerades, its more or less candid love affairs and honest schemes linked to mask-wearing, as testified by its prolific literature. The near physical relationships, which occurred daily amongst the city’s inhabitants between calli and callette, corti and campielli, and the extensive promiscuity which denied any kind of privacy, stem perhaps from an ancestral urge to return to anonymity, for which the mask is an ideal accomplice.
Venetian masks can be made of leather, porcelain or using the original glass technique. The original masks were rather simple in design, decoration, and often had a symbolic and practical function. Nowadays, most Italian masks are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are hand-painted using natural feathers and gems to decorate. Masks that are traditionally used during Venetian Carnival can be divided in to two groups: Commedia dell’ Arte masks and Carnival masks.
Commedia dell’Arte was a type of improvisational theatre that was popular form 16th to 18th century but is played even today. Traveling artists and actors would set up a stage and perform juggling acts as well as improvisational plays with rough skeleton of a scenario into which was easy to insert topical themes, which made them very popular. Some Venetian carnival masks are taken from these plays and they carry the names of the characters that wore them.
The Columbina is a half mask often highly decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers. It is held up to the face by a baton or tied with ribbon as with most other Venetian masks. The columbine was popularised by an early actress in the Commedia dell’arte of the same name. It is said it was designed for her because she did not wish to have her beautiful face covered completely. Other popular masks from Commedia dell’arte are: Pulcinella, Capitano, Zanni, Arlecchino, Brighella, Pantalone, Scaramuccia, Rosaura.
Carnival masks have their names too and are more popular. “Bauta” is probably the most famous of masks. It covers the whole face and has no mouth but it has beak-like chin that allows wearer to talk, eat and drink without taking it off. With it goes red or black cloak and a tricorn hat. In 18th century It was obligatory to wear it at certain political decision-making events when all citizens were required to act anonymously as peers. Only citizens had the right to use the Bauta. “Dama” is a full mask of a female face, heavily gilded. “Gatto” is a half-mask in a shape of cat’s head. Cats were rare in Venice and this is probably one of the reasons for choosing that shape for a mask. “Dottore Peste” or “Medico della Peste” is a strange looking mask; with its long beak is one of the most bizarre and recognisable of the Venetian masks. The striking design has a macabre history originating from 17th century French physician Charles de Lorme who adopted the mask together with other sanitary precautions while treating plague victims. The mask is white consisting of a hollow beak and round eye holes covered with crystal discs creating a bespectacled effect. Other masks are: Moretta and la Ruffiana.
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